Interview: Writer-Director Theresa Bennett of Social Animals
I spoke with writer/director Theresa Bennett, making her feature debut with Social Animals, about how it all came together, working with her cast and crew, weaving the landscape of Austin into the story, and more!
RT: Social Animals is your feature filmmaking debut, what major obstacles or lessons did you experience while making this movie?
TB: I think all first-time directors have the challenge of finding their style when they step onto the set. It's a really careful balance to work towards getting the performances you want, and also running your crew. The weird part is, you find your true footing about halfway through production and then the experience is almost over. I always wanted to create a sense of community on my set, a feeling that everyone is a vital part of the process, and to treat every department with respect. I wanted to make everyone feel excited to come to work every day. You realize really quickly that from the director's chair, you set the tone for your production. And I would say being calm and collected is probably my greatest lesson. Someone told me when there's turbulence on a plane, you look at the cabin crew to see if they panic. A director can't panic, because then the production panics as well. So composure, leading with positivity and really taking in the experience were the most important pieces of the puzzle. I'm so lucky to make a movie, I like to lead with gratitude.
RT: How was the collaborative process?
TB: It was amazing, but that's a huge credit to my cast and crew. We had a primarily female crew, which I was really proud of, and this is a movie centered around strong independent women which sadly you don't see getting made very often. I always wanted to keep things moldable; so when the actors had input I listened, when the crew had ideas I heard them. Screenwriting is a really solitary gig, directing is entirely about collaborating. You hit the lottery when you get to collaborate with smart people who put their hearts into the movie along with you. I hit the lottery with this entirely Austin-based crew (aside from my incredible DP Sandra Valde and producer Melodie Sisk who flew in). Josh Radnor was so fun to collaborate with because he's not only an actor he's a director I really respect and he's really brilliant with story and character. Getting to sit with him and go over the script before we shot was such a highlight for me. As an indie film geek that worked at a video store growing up I kinda had to pinch myself. I can't believe I got to work with someone I admire so much as a filmmaker and Noël had just made her first film so it was such an asset to have her to talk to as well. She's a genius and I got so lucky.
RT: In terms of setting the film in Austin, what was most important to communicate in terms of the environment or culture?
TB: Austin is a town I fell so in love with, and I spent a lot of time there absorbing the culture and listening to its heartbeat. I wanted to tell a gentrification story in a place that felt relevant in terms of what's going on all over the country. Austin is an artistic hub and cultural mecca, but the coolest thing I observed there is how much control people take over their own destiny. From opening food trucks to storefronts, my friends in East Austin bought abandoned properties and built the most amazing family home with their own hands; it inspires me endlessly, and it's a metaphor in a bigger way for how this movie came to be. I couldn't finance a female driven story to save my life and it took 7 years to get it from script to screen, ultimately Ash Christian (the producer) and I fought for it ourselves and somehow got it made. I also made a point to use homegrown Austin bands I had seen play, or got recommendations from local friends. The music in this town is something so special, it was baked into the script and I'm so happy these musicians were cool about letting me work with them.
RT: Josh Radnor's character Paul owns the Vulcan Video store, a major landmark for Austin film fans. How did you go about incorporating that into the story?
TB: I mentioned I worked at a video store as a teenager (side note I got fired for watching Cape Fear during the day because the content was not child friendly), but also video stores were my favorite place in the world growing up. As a film geek, going to a place where you're just surrounded by movies and get to stumble on these random amazing titles that jump of the shelves was paradise for me. I discovered so many movies that way. I hate losing those physical storefronts as society moves into a digital age (though I love any excuse to not leave my couch and think there's value in the Netflix and chill of it all). Vulcan is a really important store to Austin locals when we hung a going out of business sign people walking by freaked out and we wound up posting signs in the North Loop that assured everyone it wasn't actually closing. Vulcan is a rally special place and it's a one of those last remaining video stores that's still standing and doing well. I can't believe the owners were so cool about us filming and I'm insanely grateful we got to use it.
RT: Your film has a lot of great, talented actors in the ensemble, what was the casting process like?
TB: I met a lot of actors for this movie, but I always knew the key was to start with Zoe. I had fallen in love with the idea of Noël Wells after seeing her work on Master of None then checking out her YouTube channel which was filled with these brilliant sketches and impressions, she suggested Josh Radnor for Paul which was crazy because he was the first person I ever thought of to play the role. Aya Cash is someone I had met in casting meetings and Fortune Feister was as well - all of us just really connected. I knew this was the group of people I needed to make the right movie. We still had to cast Claire and Lana we were in Austin when we talked about Carly Chaiken and Samira Wiley I was so so lucky they were available and flew out right away. Everyone was wonderful and supportive of me and the film. It seems like total BS when people say everyone was a dream on set, but it's the truth. They were the coolest people in the world.
RT: It goes without saying this is a fairly sex-positive romantic comedy, what do you think about the nature of the genre today and where it's heading?
TB: I always call this movie an anti-romantic comedy because it's not about the reasons why you love someone it's what you love them in spite of. I hope the genre is heading towards shattering typical female archetypes - portraying women with honesty and independence, redefining the idea of happy endings. I don't think that women need men to come to their rescue at the end of a rom-com - they are more than capable of saving themselves. Sex is a really important part of relationships, and I loved exploring it as both a form of connection and disconnection. It's not this unspoken phantom thing we cut away from. In a larger sense I want to see the landscape change and make room to diversify our content, we, as audiences, want to stop seeing the same movie over and over - I think we all now realize that there's room for more than just one type of voice film. Movies made by women, movies that center around women are proving themselves at the box office so I'm really optimistic that moving forward the world is ready to see a whole lot more of the stories and we are more than ready to tell them.